Now honestly, what really made you go back to school?

Just about everyone who has gone back to school later in life knows the question: “What made you decide to go back to school?”

What I’ve found is that the answers are pretty generic, including:

  • “It was time.”
  • “I felt I needed to.”
  • “The time was right.”
  • “Work offers tuition reimbursement.”

None of these are a real answer.  Now, we may feel the question is polite, or prying, and doesn’t require a thought out response, but it does, for both parties.  Here’s why:  the answer serves to reaffirm the goal behind the effort for the one answering; the answer can provide insight or inspiration for the person asking, especially if it may be something they would consider.  The real answer is about motivation.

So, now I’m going to tell you my honest answer to the question:  I went back to school because I realized that without a Bachelor’s degree I wasn’t going to get anywhere for another ten years.

In 2007, I had been at my company for roughly 3 1/2 years.  I applied for a position that required three years experience and a Bachelor’s degree, or equivalent experience.  I found out later, the equivalent work experience for this company is two years for every year of the degree, so eight years experience, added to the three years required and 11 years of experience is needed with no degree.  Ouch.  I would have had to start working when I was 12 or 13 to have the experience for said job.

It was that smack in the face called reality that made me ask the question, “Without a degree, how long do I have to wait?”  The answer was 5-8 years and that was just too long for me.

When I give the honest answer, instead of the quick and easy answer, there’s a pause.  Then I get follow-up questions.  They include questions about how I thought I could afford it, if it was overwhelming to think about going back to school, how did I balance work, school and personal life, and did I ever think about quitting before I finished.

Those are the kind of questions that also need to be answered honestly.  For the financial aspect, it was one of those things where I just had to think there would be a way, be it grants, student loans, payment plans, or something.  Regarding work / school / life balance, my answer is that there is always sacrifice, but the key is to remember that there is sacrifice in going back to school and there is sacrifice in not going back to school.  People forget that the status quo has an opportunity cost as well, and deciding to do nothing has its own trade-offs.  In my mind, not going back to school was sacrificing what my career could be for the next 30 years, so sacrificing 2 to 4 years of personal time was worth it.

The last question is always the hardest one to answer, not because the answer is difficult, but because it is an emotional question.  The answer truly is yes, I did consider quitting.  I considered it when I had to be up at 5 AM on a Saturday to go to school and all I really wanted was sleep, when I was doing homework every night of the week and on Sundays and nothing else, when I was gaining weight from not being out and about, when I was exhausted just waiting for the current session to be over.

Every time I told my husband (then boyfriend) that I considered quitting he would just turn around and ask me, “Why did you go back then, if you were just going to quit?”  And his follow-up would be, “Do you still think you need the degree?”  And that question, my friends, prompted the immediate “Of course I do!” response.  “Then I guess you’re not quitting, so get back to it.”

By the way, we learned to reward completion, homework completion and class completion, like you would your own kids.  I got ice cream when my homework for the week was done, if it was done before Friday night.  I love ice cream.

So, back to it, when you ask someone, or are asked the question, “What made you decide to go back to school?”  Tell them you are truly interested, give honest answers and feedback. The answers should provide perspective, provoke thought and maybe, just maybe, provide a bit of inspiration for the next step of your journey.

You were born with potential.  You were born with goodness and trust.  You were born with ideals and dreams.  You were born with greatness. – Djalal Ad-Din Rumi

Context Changes Perception and Lasting Impressions… In Music

I was recently asked about my favorite music to listen to while writing.  While I do love music, I find that I usually write with only my thoughts on continuous play.  So, instead of putting nothing as the answer, I put down “Video game music.”  Specifically I would mean Japanese (or Japanese-styled) role-playing games.  I love JRPGames almost as much as reading.  Interactive science-fiction / fantasy?  I’m there!  Favorites include Final Fantasy, Star Ocean, Xenosaga, Atelier Iris and many more.

Linking JRPG’s, and their music, to writing got me thinking about why I like the music and what makes the music different from the pop, rock, electronica and other varieties of music to which I listen on a regular basis.  I realized that it was context and purpose.

In my mind, the music in a JRPG enhances the scenes and reinforces the concepts conveyed for people and places.  An easy example is battle music: never slow or dull, it’s designed to enhance the sense of danger and need for action.  Boss battle music is typically different, adding drama and heightening the awareness of it being a significant battle.  Town and dungeon music will be different depending on the mood of the town.  A laid-back fishing town will have an easy-going melody that’s not too fast, while military town will have a controlled rhythm, conveying power and authority.

As I thought about this, I realized that I always link the music to the scenes, rarely does the music simply stand on its own.  Listening to Kefka’s theme from Final Fantasy VI, I can hear the mischief, the drama and the entertainer.  What the theme music is missing is Kefka’s insanity and the need for chaos.  When I think of the Image Theme of Xenosaga II, I’m stuck on the game’s trailer, which took full advantage of the slow start to the song, the increased intensity in the middle and the soft finish.

This got me thinking about how instrumental and classical music can be pulled out of context from the composer’s intention because usually there aren’t other mediums that reinforce them.  [Side note:  Yes, my thoughts are a ball of many strings that connect in a continuous loop, complete with snags, tangles and occasionally more than one end to follow].

So, I would like to have you take part in a little experiment for me.  I would like you to listen to what is one of the most popular classical songs of the 20th century due to being one of the most played classical songs in various movies, shows and advertisements.  The song is “Carmina Burana: O Furtuna” by Carl Orff.  As you listen to the song, think about what the song conveys to you.  After you do that, look up a translation for the lyrics.  I will tell you now that the lyrics are from a poem written in the 13th century, and likely they don’t mean what you think.  Now, could Carl Orff had pulled it off the same way if the poem (and lyrics) had been in English instead of Latin?  Now that you know the meaning, listen to the song again, does the song convey something different? Do you now get a mixed message?  Or, do you do what I do and ignore the meaning of the poem and only listen to the context provided by the music.

For JRPG music to have the impact it does, the message and the context have to be aligned with the scenes and characters.  Having a depressed character with a happy-go-lucky theme with create a disconnect and make the character less memorable, harder to connect with.

Now apply this same concept to writing, speaking and other forms of communication.  What additional mediums are in play that change the context, meaning, or authenticity of the message?

What makes a story worth writing?

Just an up front note…  This is not about what makes a story worth reading, which is akin to asking what makes a painting into art.  That question is all in the perspective of who is reading the story or looking at the painting.  I don’t like Picasso, but that doesn’t mean his paintings aren’t art.  I prefer to read fiction, that doesn’t make non-fiction into something not worth reading.

But I digress…

So, what is one writer’s opinion about what makes a story worth writing?

I’ll give you three words:  Passion.  Persistence.  Obsession.

  • Passion:  strong and barely controllable emotion
  • Persistence:  firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition
  • Obsession:  an idea or thought that continually preoccupies or intrudes on a person’s mind

Writing, like any art form, requires the person to be driven, requires us to have an uncontrollable need to see the story through to completion.  The writer themselves will have a strong desire to know what happens at the end, just like a reader.

The story I’m writing now started as a draft prologue in 2009.  I used to just write poetry, but I suddenly had the need to write an intro for an idea that was rolling around in my head.  Now, life intervening the way it has a tendency to do, after that intro I didn’t do any writing at all for quite some time.  However, when the rest of my world slowed down and my creative side started itching, I went back to the story I had started all those years ago.

Now the story keeps unfolding before me all the time.  I’ll get ideas for characters, towns, pivot points and tangent stories all the time.  I carry a notebook with me all the time specifically for my story.  The best part?  My story makes me happy.  It makes me happy to know that I’m creating something all my own, all original.  It’s something I want to see through to the end, not something someone told me that I had to see through.

What makes a story worth writing?  A story is worth writing when it becomes a part of what makes us who we are.  When it begins to drive us beyond the bounds of our own limitations.  When the need to finish the story outweighs the energy and effort required.  When the story produces such a strong sense of purpose for ourselves that others can sense it and are moved by it as well.  A story worth writing will both invigorate and exhaust a writer.  However, once the mountain has been conquered, the view is great.

I believe everyone has a passion they are obsessed with and should pursue with relentless persistence.  What’s your story worth writing?

Influence – After & Before

We are continuously influenced by our experiences and the world around us.  So much so sometimes that it can be hard to sort out who we versus what the world has made us.

Every now and then we need to step back and look at the core of who we are.  Recognizing what truly makes us who we are provides us an anchor for the everything else in our lives.  The anchor, the core, cannot be influenced.  It provides a template for what does influence us, but is not influenced itself.

We can add different experiences, knowledge and wisdom to the boat, but the anchor will always be the same.  It will always root us, no matter how deep the water or turbulent the ocean. It provides us peace when the rest of the world does not.

I would like you to take a minute to look at the image below.  Gazing at the image, what words come to the surface?

Stone and Sand

As you looked at the image, did you come up with words like peace? Zen? Meditation?

The image is really just a rock on sand.  If you want to get detailed, the rock has circles around it, drawn in the sand.  Nothing more to it than that.

Influence is also about priming.  You are setup to react in a specific manner based on the messages you have been provided.  You were influenced to react to the above image in a specific way.

Businesses will influence you in restaurants, stores and advertisements.  Marketing is all about influencing decisions made by consumers.

Writing is largely priming and influence as well.  In order to take someone out of their normal experiences into the world of the story, the author has to continually set the scene, the mood and the flow of the story.

In every day life, we prime others for certain reactions whether or not we intend to do so.  Think about chores around the house.  Kids notoriously do not want to do chores and we provide different incentives to get them to help, such as allowances, or if/then options (ex: if you do the dishes then you can go outside).  As parents, think about your own reactions to doing chores.  Most parents don’t like doing chores either.  Who wants to work and then come home and do more work?  In this way, we unconsciously prime others, including the kids, to view chores as a negative activity.

What’s one thing you do regularly, good or bad, you think inadvertently influences those around you?

On the flip side, can you recognize the subtle influences around you that prime you to react a certain way?


Phrasing – Little changes are big differences

This first post is a little bit writing and a little bit marketing.

When I walked into a Starbucks the other day, as I was waiting to order, I heard something I hadn’t heard before.  One of the baristas was asking the customer in drive-thru, “What can I get started for you?”  Now, for a moment you may say, how is that any different from, “What can I get you?”  However, there is a big difference in what the phrase now implies.

Going for the standard “What can I get you?” phrase, the implication is I order, the person behind the counter then picks out the item I order, gives it to me and I pay.  This is perfect for a store, where nothing is made on the spot.

By tweaking the phrase into “What can I get started for you?” or “What can I start for you?”, the phrase now carries an implication that something needs to be made or customized for the order.  This can subtly and unconsciously change a customer’s view and expectations.

For Starbucks, it’s about differentiation and getting customers to understand that they aren’t like other large corporate coffee shops, but are more like your local coffee shop, introducing a personal element into the experience.

Now, think of this same concept in terms of writing: phrasing changes context.  Of course we understand this when the phrasing changes are significant.  Who hasn’t been on the wrong side of the “you could have phrased that a little better” or “you could have worded that differently” feedback comments, or said these to themselves?

But the phrasing difference in the example above is minor.  It’s just replacing the word ‘get’ with the words ‘start for’ and now the phrase means something different.  The change it evokes is also minor, but phrases like this can alter the context of a paragraph, or break up the flow in that section.

Think of a common phrase you say or hear in your every day, change one or two words without significantly altering the meaning.  Think of what the phrase now implies that it didn’t before.

Author and Casual Photographer